The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an amazing role-playing game, but it sometimes lacks cohesiveness in its storytelling. Killing dragons and consuming their souls in effort to thwart an all-out fire (or ice) lizard takeover is a fine premise for an epic adventure, but I often found myself ignoring the main story in favor of rooting out dangerous enchanted artifacts and exploring Dwarven ruins.
That isn’t to say that Skyrim is boring. If it was, I wouldn’t have logged nearly 200 hours playing the game. It’s just that Skyrim’s main quest doesn’t have a real sense of urgency. Sure, you can work diligently to uncover why all the long-dead dragons are coming back, but you have very little incentive to see this plotline through the moment you stumble across a talking dog who wants you to help his demonic master.
Dawnguard, the first piece of downloadable content for Skyrim, takes a different approach to storytelling than the main game. Harkon, a powerful vampire lord, wants to find a set of Elder Scrolls and use its power to end the tyranny of the sun. Since the Dragonborn is Skyrim’s resident hunter of baddies who want to change the world to suit themselves, you can join the Dawnguard guild of vampire hunters.
Or, if you’re feeling particularly evil, you can sign up with the vampires.
Either way, terrible, sun-ending villainy is going down, and you’re caught in the middle.
WHAT YOU’LL LIKE
A sense of urgency
Perhaps it’s because the DLC revolves around a clearly stated premise, but the related quests simply feel much more connected and important than many in the main storyline. When your character reaches level 10, guards and townsfolk throughout Skyrim will make mention of people assembling a Dawnguard, or group of vampire slayers. The hunters will take just about anyone who wants to join, so you can travel to a hidden keep outside Riften to trigger the related quests.
Quickly, you find out that a powerful clan of vampires is growing increasingly more active and that the Dawnguard might be the only defense against whatever it’s planning.
What Dawnguard does particularly well is tying itself into the rest of the world by adding new threads to existing side quests. Unlocking items and conversations pertaining to the new content often means exploring easily overlooked dungeons already in Skyrim. This gives the threat against the sun a much larger presence and fleshes out a few odd-ball missions that felt a bit rushed before.
Everything simply feels connected, and a sense of urgency rises from wanting to see how the origin of the blind snow elves, vampires, and a Daedric Prince are all involved in the threat against sunlight.
Vampire and werewolf perks
Before Dawnguard, contracting lycanthropy or sanguinare vampiris was often more of an annoyance than a potentially useful gameplay mechanic. As a vampire, the longer you go without feeding on humans, the more horrifying you look. While you also get more powerful, advanced vampirism turns pretty much everyone hostile when they see you. Being a werewolf comes with the awesome bonus of turning into a massive killing machine, but it also takes away any bonuses you get from sleeping and can only be activated once a day.
Dawnguard introduces a new perk system that rewards you for using your monster powers and allows for modest customization. As you claw and feast your way through opponents, you’ll unlock skill points to use in a separate perks tree. If you follow the new Vampire Lord ability also added in Dawnguard, you gain the power to turn into a hulking half-bat creature capable of using blood magic.
Having a separate perk tree is great for players who might have maxed out their character’s experience level (Skyrim’s semi-cap is still at 50) or others who are just looking for a new set of skills to work with. You can only access to the new system if you are a werewolf or vampire and turn into your alternate form. Right now, the only way to become a vampire lord is to follow a related quest in Dawnguard — much like how completing a few companion missions grants you access to lycanthropy.
Archery is a very useful skill for many play styles, but bows aren’t majorly powerful. The crossbow, which is the weapon of choice for the Dawnguard, adds a major kick to the archery perk. If your character is highly skilled in stealth and ranged attacks, the crossbow gives you a dangerous edge when taking down groups of enemies covertly. It makes much more noise than a bow and takes a lot longer to reload, but it also hits way harder. But since the crossbow takes advantage of all such archery kills, it is possible to speed up the reload time.
The only downside is that crossbows require special bolts, and you’ll probably have to make your own to keep a steady supply going. Other than that, crossbows can provide a critical edge when clearing out dens of vampires and subterranean creatures known as Falmer.
WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE
Dawnguard likes to make you travel. While the game takes place in Skyrim’s northern regions, you’ll be exploring pretty much all of the most grueling and mountainous terrain available. Since the DLC also adds several new locations to the world map, you’ll be making those journeys on foot most times.
On several occasions, you’ll travel from the island regions to the northwest of Solitude to another island region east of the Mage College in Winterhold. Even if you fast travel to the nearest known location, you have a fair bit of mountain climbing to do, which is hardly an easy task.
Admittedly, the only way I’ve ever overcome mountains is to buy a horse and use its supernatural ability to break the game’s physics programming by shakily climbing previously inaccessible terrain. Well, nothing’s changed, so be sure to acquire a horse while on your Dawnguard expedition.
A new follower
Without getting into too many spoilers, Dawnguard also has a couple of new followers for you to choose from. One of them is a vampire named Serana. She is the most vengeance-filled follower you’ll ever see and gleefully murders anything and anyone who isn’t you. Previous companions were also a bit kill-happy, but Serana takes it to another level by perpetually striking first.
When she isn’t hacking away at vital, quest-related, non-player characters, she’s milling around aimlessly during your conversations and even trapping you in narrow passages until you force her out of your way. She’s reliable and helpful in many ways, but her penchant for massacring everything that could potentially go hostile makes her a dangerous companion if you’ve followed the Vampire Lord plotline.
Her constant milling around can also force NPCs off their designated paths, which can delay a quest’s completion or force you to restart from the beginning.
Serana also has a raise dead spell that is often laughably terrible. Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of vampire hunters like an undead deer prancing toward them.
Dawnguard feels like a part of Skyrim in a way that many DLC expansions rarely achieve. Bethesda went the extra mile to tweak existing quests in order to fully integrate the experience, and their effort shows. The constant treks across Skyrim do get a bit old after a while, but the wealth of new powers, information, and intrigue you’ll find along the way more than makes up for the long walks.
The best part of Dawnguard is honestly how much of Skyrim’s lore it explores. Who knew that one crazy vampire’s plan to blot out the sun would reveal so many mysteries and hidden locations?
Dawnguard is a DLC expansion for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and is currently only available on the Xbox 360 but will be available on PC and PlayStation 3 soon. Bethesda provided an Xbox 360 download code for Dawnguard for the purpose of this review.